It’s become a pretty common phenomenon to see fairy tales maligned in media. And, as you might have guessed from the title, I’m actually a fan. So that’s why I’ll be donning my warrior garb today, vaulting up a tower and springing to the rescue of this poor damsel in distress!
Okay, maybe this won’t be quite that dramatic 😉 Now, obviously I want to make it clear (for all the people in the back) that this isn’t a defence of every story, iteration or idea in fairy tales- but of the overarching themes and genre as a whole. Nor am I pretending that the context of the stories being formulated or written down was a grand old time. I know this may be a little headspinning, but I’m genuinely not trying to take a broadbrush positive view to counterbalance the prevailing negative opinions- I’m simply trying to show how there’s a little more complexity to be had here. Without further ado, let’s get into why fairy tales rock:
They’re full of possibilities. Fairy tales aren’t nearly as straightforward as a lot of people seem to believe- they’re a mosaic of views and symbols that welcome multiple interpretations. While I largely disagree with some modern takes on fairy tales- and the holders of those beliefs no doubt disagree with me- it nonetheless proves my point: two people can easily read the same story and come out with wildly different readings. I would love it if more people that criticise fairy tales thought to themselves how else could this be interpreted? Because the mistake a lot of people that are dismissive of fairy tales make is that there’s *one* correct analysis- and this simply isn’t true.
There’s actually more than enough room for imagination when reading fairy tales. A lot of the time, they’re simplified to the point where they leave us with lots of questions- oftentimes leaving them unanswered. Again, I see people filling in the blanks, all the while not realising that they’re contributing to the tradition of orality and retelling that goes into making these stories (ooh err, getting very Death of the Author-y up in here- shout out to my English Lit homies 😉 ). These stories aren’t static; they’re constantly growing beyond the bounds of the page. Not to be too grim, but Hansel and Gretel may “live together in perfect harmony” (with the father who had “not had a happy hour since the day he had abandoned his children”), yet in this world of fairy tales happiness has already been shown to be fleeting. At the same time, there’s always the Gilbert and Gubar view that the hero inevitably morphs into the villain- hence showing that we create more than one meaning out of these stories. Thanks to their open-endedness, fairy tales are constantly being reimagined in our own minds- it’s our decision whether we see them as monstrous or not.
Fairy tales also present stories in their simplest form– and there’s always something to be said for the basic story structure. Still, while there’s an argument to be made that the traditional good vs evil dichotomy is a strong premise, fairy tales are often harder to pin down on closer examination. Take the story of Bluebeard: an evil husband that keeps killing his wives when they discover he’s a murderer. Supposedly designed to teach women to curb their curiosity, it nonetheless provides justification for the wife’s curiosity when he’s proven to be a murderer (and since murdering your wife wasn’t socially acceptable in Perrault’s day, one can assume this was as baffling then as it is now). Ergo, as much as one could claim fairy tales smack the reader over the head with their blatant morality, the problem is they often undermine themselves with their own complexity. The messages they entail may not be as rigid as first presumed.
That’s why they’re often viewed as educational for children. Some stories, like Little Red Riding Hood offer warnings at their most basic level, like “maybe don’t trust that dodgy stranger in the wood”. This in turn lends credence to Marina Warner and Karen Rowe’s views that these “old wives tales”, though written down by men, may have been composed for women by women. Furthermore, facing down these dangers in a safe environment could be seen as a positive exploration of a child’s psyche- indeed critics such as Bettelheim have argued this is crucial to a child’s development. As primordial narratives, the core of these tales often reflects on deeply embedded emotional struggles and makes sense out of the chaotic world. For that reason…
…they’re also suitable for adults 😉 All this, for me, goes back to how fairy tales run much deeper than many people realise. Again, I’m not saying there aren’t fairy tales that are as dodgy as hell (hello Basile’s Sleeping Beauty- yes I know someone’s going to refer to that). BUT that doesn’t mean it’s wise to dismiss such complex stories or reduce them down to terms and ideas that don’t necessarily hold up under scrutiny. As fashionable as it is to bash fairy tales, I can’t help but wonder where we would be without them.
And for once I have a (lazy) bibliography:
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York, W. W. Norton and Company: 1322-1326
Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Struggle for Meaning”. The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. London: W.W.Norton and Company, 1998. 269-273. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. “Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother”. The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. London: W.W.Norton and Company, 1998. 291-297. Print.
Rowe, Karen. “To Spin a Yarn”. The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. London: W.W.Norton and Company, 1998. 297-308. Print.
Warner, Marina. “The Old Wives’ Tale”. The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. London: W.W.Norton and Company, 1998. 309-317. Print.
So- dare I ask- do you have any love for fairy tales? Let me know in the comments!